After the 'Panther' incident in 1911, when a German gunboat had been dispatched to the Moroccan port of Agadir, and international tensions rose, the revised plans for the BEF to support our allies in the 'Entente Cordiale' were amended. The Director of Military Operations at the War Office committed six divisions, each with an ambulance train, to support the French Army when necessary.
The BEF would have its base in Northern France, though exactly where was not decided until much later (just before mobilization in late July 1914). Since the sick and wounded troops returning from the front, after initial treatment, would be moved back across the Channel to the home base, plans were laid accordingly for the construction of ambulance trains for movement of casualties within the UK.
As far back as 1905, the War Railway Council had proposed that the leading railway companies should enter into an agreement with the War Office to supply the required rolling stock. Unfortunately the War Office rejected the railway companies' costing. The matter was dropped but this was almost certainly the reason there was no rolling stock earmarked for the continental ambulance trains.
When Britain went to war in 1914, unparalleled amounts of rolling stock and railway personnel were sent abroad in order to meet what had been seen as a remote contingency only seven years earlier. Unfortunately, in August 1914, there was still no provision of actual rolling stock as the BEF had assumed our French Allies would step in and help.
The mobilization in 1914 found Territorial officers like George Moore camped on a hillside outside Aldershot. There were six ambulance train detachments of two officers and forty five men each, but no trains. After drawing stores and completing training, they travelled from Southampton to Boulogne and arrived at the BEF's advance base at Amiens. There they were told that, owing to the great stress of transportation of troops and munitions, it would be impossible to have British ambulance trains brought out from England. In fact the trains had been designated only for UK use, and in 1914 none had been constructed. It had been assumed the movement of British casualties from the front line to the French ports would be made using the French 'trains sanitaires'.
The rapid advance of the German Army shook the French, the strain on the French railways was enormous, and hence any conversion of French wagons for ambulance trains was wishful thinking. Then the unexpected occurred: the French provided the British with a collection of 100 large goods wagons plus some passenger coaches and brake vans. So was born the British Ambulance Train Service. The rolling stock was divided into three portions, each to form an ambulance train, and the crews got on with the task of thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the rolling stock. As the ambulance crews had not brought out sufficient supplies, they set about buying the required goods from the shops in Amiens, which were soon stripped. At least one journey was made to Paris to complete the stock of goods. Before this was completed, Amiens was evacuated and the Ambulance service relocated to Rouen where the French authorities were persuaded to hand over enough third class carriages so that the seats could be removed and a fourth ambulance train made up.
The BEF was taking casualties during the retreat and they had to be moved back somehow. Necessity led to the use of horse trucks which had brought the cavalry horses forward. After being cleaned and disinfected, the stretchers were laid on the straw to cushion the wounded from too much discomfort. This was far better than the German ambulance train service which, although better prepared than the British, still fell short of requirements; initially the German wounded were sent back in dirty trucks, packed like sardines with no attention or protection from the cold.
It was now the end of August, four weeks into the war and only four of the six planned ambulance trains were in existence. Requests to the French railway authorities were passed from official to official without any action being taken right up until the point where Rouen was to be evacuated. Then everything changed: on 30 August a French ambulance train steamed into Rouen. The Territorial officer George Moore recounts how he persuaded the French commander of the train to join forces with the BEF ambulance train crew. Moore proceeded to load his four trucks worth of valuable medical stores onto the French train and merge his 45 personnel with the 25 men of the French crew. This ambulance train was soon known as the 'Franco-British' was soon performing valuable work in the area around Paris. It met up with its sister British trains at Creil, where George Moore shared out the ambulance train stores with the other three train crews.
The demand for additional ambulance trains continued into September as the Allied troops continued to retreat. By 17 September 1914, the BEF had a total of seven trains, six from converted French rolling stock and the French Army ambulance train, the 'Franco-British'. To equip the extra trains, the shops of Le Mans, this time, were stripped in order to equip the trains.
The limitations of these early ambulance trains were obvious from the start. The three original trains were made up of converted wagons, they were not heated, the loose coupling caused considerable jolting of the patients and, of course, there was no intercommunication between the wagons. The fourth train still had no interconnection between carriages and the doors were barely wide enough to admit a stretcher. It was not until the fifth train was created, in mid-September, that communicating coaches were made available. The lack of communication between the carriages was one of the most serious limitations. The experience revealed in a contemporary account from a serving nurse, Sister Philips, combines the humour and stoicism which typifies the time:
All the coaches on the train were entirely unconnected and those nurses who have only carried out nursing duties on trains whose entire length it is impossible to walk without going outside, can hardly realise the inconvenience, sometimes amusing, but at most times vexatious, to which one was put in 1914. Climbing from coach to coach by way of the footboard was a practise absolutely forbidden, though it was more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Frequently this means of passing from one coach to another was an absolute necessity in the interests of the patients. No doubt a French stationmaster in a little out of the way French village will probably remember to this day the sight that met his amazed gaze in the early hours of a beautiful September morning in 1914. An ambulance train was flying through his station with an English sister clinging like a limpet to the side of the train.
In the early days of the war, the wounded were entrained with all the dirt, mud and blood of battle on them. Many suffered from injuries such as shrapnel wounds which were slowly becoming gangrenous. The workload of the nurses and orderlies only reduced when, with the German Army held, the front stabilised and fixed, Casualty Clearing Stations could be established: the patients were able to be entrained washed, fed and in pyjamas, having received first aid and, when absolutely necessary, surgery. Even the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem Society were able to equip an ambulance train (having accepted the constraints imposed by the French and British authorities). This first Red Cross train had six Army staff and forty seven Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade orderlies, all in uniform, and came into service in December 1914, at a time when a considerable consolidation and an element of uniformity was at last being brought to bear on the ambulance train stock in France.
This article is based on a talk given by Chris Chambers to the Yorkshire branch of the Western Front Association.
Contributed by: Peter J Palmer.
Images kindly supplied by Sue Light (Image no 2 sourced originally from the IWM Q1319 and no 3 from Terry Reeves)
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